sexual harassment

A foreign woman's response to Mahesh Sharma: It's got nothing to do with dressing modestly

A story of surviving India as a woman, and how things are changing, slowly but surely.

Thank you Mahesh Sharma for reminding me that it is up to us foreign girls to dress modestly rather than for desi boys to behave appropriately or for the police to be actively part of ensuring everyone’s safety in India.

There is nothing new, however, in the tourism minister suggesting handing out welcome kits telling women not to wear skirts or go out at night. It eerily reminded me of the guidelines given to me over 25 years ago before I first came to India.

My first taste of India

Rewind to 1990 in Montreal. I sat through a pre-orientation for a Summer Study Abroad in India programme. We were provided tips on appropriate behaviour, dress, health and safety. Some of these suggestions were remarkably similar to the tourism minister’s controversial comments.

Traveling all over India, we were struck by the contrast in what was acceptable in different contexts and parts of the country. We witnessed clear gender segregation and strict hierarchies, norms of behavior in rural Gujarat that contrasted completely with young couples merrily sauntering hand-in-hand on the streets of downtown Bangalore.

And those guidelines? Dressing modestly was no magic shield from being harassed. Instead, traveling in a group, sprinkled with our limited male members, did the trick.

It was a remarkable experience and an early lesson on how multiple realities and rules coexist – particularly in matters of gender relations.

Introduction to eveteasing

Fast forward to 1995, I returned, as a student in Delhi. This time, I was on my own. No orientation, no guides, no group. I lived as a paying guest with a family for a year.

From the first week, I navigated Delhi Transport Corporation buses and was immediately acquainted with the real meaning of the innocuous sounding phrase eveteasing. On the buses, it meant various body parts rubbed and hands grabbed private places they had no right to.

Did what I wore make a difference? Only slightly. A simple salwar kurta did not prevent unwanted attention. I was young, blue-eyed, fair and, therefore, fair prey.

And then the family I was living with shared a story.

A story of how the matriarch mashi was driving past a bus stop near IIT Gate and saw a young woman being taunted by a young man on a bicycle. The girl kept her eyes downcast, shrinking into herself. The boy grew more emboldened. Until, mashi intervened.

She leapt out of her car, yanked the boy off his bike, grabbed her chappal and started hitting him on the head. “How dare you abuse this girl? Have you no shame? No mother? No sister?” Scared witless, the boy ran off.

But the story did not end here.

Mashi then turned to the girl. “Why did you let him get away with misbehaving? If he does this to you today, what more will he try in future?”

The girl in question was not a foreigner. It had nothing to do with her eye, skin or hair colour. Only her gender.

The story empowered me to shed my polite Canadian demeanour and fight back. Practising my rudimentary Hindi, I embarrassed the perpetrators by shaming them loudly, shoving away their groping fingers.

Simplistic notions of not wearing a skirt or going out alone at night were not enough to survive Delhi. What I had to learn was to behave boldly if required. To expect harassment and be prepared for battle.

It worked. And as I accepted this new reality, I began to see a social revolution around me.

Urban India was changing. Night clubs pulsed till the wee hours. Ad campaigns pushed the boundaries of censorship. Couples lived together before marriage.

And the hypocrisy that sometimes lay beneath conservative veneers was revealed.

That elderly tauji who demands you behave modestly, giving due respect to his stature? He had a long-term mistress with two daughters.

The India I knew on the inside was not the India people perceived on the outside.

Adopting India

For more than a decade, I’ve been fortunate to call India my adopted home.

And I found it ironic when I was asked to give advice for a Study Abroad in India programme.

How do I translate my years here to guide young women coming to India for the first time?

How do I encourage them to find a delicate balance between being true to themselves and open to new experiences and, yet, being sensitive to the different environments they will encounter? Knowing that any step they take to reduce unwanted attention simply may not make a difference.

How do I alert them to the shifting sands of acceptability based on context, time of day, location, company and more?

How do I make them acknowledge that India is not alone in its male chauvinistic notions and its inability to keep the vulnerable safe, that sexual harassment is unfortunately universal?

Today, I have age on my side. I have grown from being a young didi to a mature aunty, my hair spiked with silver. In Mumbai, I can wear a dress, go out at night and, chances are, I will be fine.

Yet, I look back on those guidelines I was given in 1990 and wonder how much has really changed.

And isn’t there another story in that?

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